Colorado Official Pushes Plan to Build $10 million Complex Atop Pikes Peak

Wed December 10, 2003 - National Edition

COLORADO SPRINGS, CO (AP) The Summit House sits atop Pikes Peak, its windows reflecting the morning sun and views that inspired Katharine Lee Bates to write "America the Beautiful."

Little is inspiring, however, about the Summit House itself, which turns 40 this month. The concrete-and-steel building has been a wreck virtually since construction was completed in December 1963.

Within months of its official opening April 28, 1964, Colorado Springs officials were scrambling to stop the structure from sinking into the mountain.

It’s been jacked up since. Literally.

The building teeters on two dozen huge jacks that keep the building level and are designed to prevent the walls from collapsing.

"The Summit House is in dire need of replacement," said Tim Grantham, of the Forest Service, which manages Pikes Peak. He oversees the city’s use of the mountain.

"The building is sinking into the permafrost," Grantham said.

The building Colorado Springs uses to welcome upward of 600,000 motorists and hikers a year to "America’s mountain" –– the star tourist attraction in a tourist town –– has been sinking for 40 years and is on the verge of collapse.

The building foundation is a concrete slab that sits on a framework of steel beams designed to float on a 6-ft. (1.8 m) -deep bed of crushed rock.

Settling over the years caused so much distortion and stress on the steel beam floor grid, wall frame and support columns that the building was condemned as unsafe and closed for several months during 1987.

Emergency work was completed and the Summit House reopened, but it never was declared fixed.

"We are able to keep the building operational, year to year," Grantham said. "But we’re never going to be able to do structural improvements to salvage it."

With that in mind, Grantham is pushing plans for a new $10 million Summit House, observatory, research center and communications facility. The plan has existed for years and started to gain momentum in the late 1990s, but funding has been a problem.

Congress appropriated $1 million in 1997 to jump-start the process for a new facility at the five-acre summit. Architects were paid $400,000 to design a two-story complex that resembles a ski lodge.

The main building would serve as a welcome center and contain spacious restrooms, a large restaurant and gift shop. The building’s 31,000 sq. ft. (2,880 sq m) –– three times larger than the existing facility –– would include a learning center, gallery and large viewing area on the second floor.

On the north end, university astronomers have proposed building a 3,000-sq.-ft. (278.7 sq m) observatory. A smaller building on the south side would house electronics and communications equipment. The building also would house the Army’s High Altitude Research Center.

The plan would allow the Forest Service to demolish the existing Summit House; a utilities building and a communications building on the east side of the summit; and the old Army research facility.

Along with the architects, the city paid $100,000 to a professional fund-raiser who spent 16 months but didn’t generate any significant donations.

Then came a 1998 Sierra Club lawsuit against the city and Forest Service claiming violations of the Clean Water Act because of erosion and sedimentation along the 13-mi. Pikes Peak Highway.

A $15 million settlement ultimately was reached and a 10-year program was launched to stop the flow of water and gravel down the mountain, choking streams, trees and reservoirs. Approximately 3 mi. (4.8 km) of the highway from the halfway picnic area have been paved and undergone drainage, erosion and sediment control work.

Next summer, crews will begin paving 1 mi. (1.6 km) above Glen Cove and start erosion control along the Severy Creek drainage basin.

Unfortunately for the Summit House, the highway project is soaking up funding and manpower.

"We’re really not pursuing the Summit House," said Dave Nickerson, deputy city manager. "When the lawsuit ensued, it became clear that our No. 1 priority was the cleanup of the environmental issues –– the drainage and road improvements. Now that the litigation has been settled, we are pursuing federal funds for the road and environmental issues.’

Grantham is undeterred.

He knows the city is facing a $20 million budget shortfall and most of the $1 million appropriated by Congress was spent on design work and no new money is on the horizon.

But he said there is no choice.

"We have an approved conceptual design for replacement of the Summit House which is still valid," Grantham said. "The Summit House is still a high priority for replacement."